Who Has Claim? – Part I: Exclusionary Ownership

Recently, I read an excellent and highly relevant article in the New York Times by Emily Badger, How ‘Not in My Backyard’ Became ‘Not in My Neighborhood’, where she wrote on how a once minor disturbance became a much larger force. For the uninitiated, nimbyism (nimby: “not in my backyard”) describes the opposition of local residents to public or private endeavors they feel may or will threaten their way of life, neighborhood character/aesthetic, and property values. As the article’s title suggests, today this phenomenon has expanded to encompass much more than one’s property lines.

I thought Emily did a great job of providing a brief history on how we got here:

Americans didn’t broadly begin to think of homeownership as a means to create wealth until around the 1970s, when housing started to appreciate faster than many other assets. And once housing became a financial asset… homeowners began to take more seriously anything they feared would harm it.

…and she also briefly stated the obvious, which I, personally, believe is the root tenet of nimbyism:

The story of how Americans came to peer beyond their own properties is also, inescapably, about race. As urbanization brought blacks and whites closer together, white communities reacted with racially restrictive covenants, aiming to keep blacks and their perceived threat to property values out of white neighborhoods. The Supreme Court ruled such covenants unenforceable in 1948, but they had long-lasting effects on how homeowners looked at the world around them, and the need to control it.

Nimbyism touches the most basic yet incendiary question(s) regarding the built environment: Who has claim? Who has the right to space? It is true that nimbyism, more often than not, addresses legitimate economic concerns. I don’t wish to understate or overlook this fact. But I must also admit that I feel it is merely a mask to hide more pressing social concerns regarding “others”. After all, race and class are two sides of the same coin.

Once homeownership became the prime vehicle to build wealth in America, the game changed. It’s human nature to hold on to what you’ve worked hard to build. I accept that. It’s human nature to protect what you’ve built, and your children’s future, at all cost. I accept that. But, I must ask, at what cost?

To be clear, I do believe that citizens have a right to voice their opinions and weigh in on what would have an impact on their neighborhood. In a vacuum, there is great value to local residents striving to preserve their neighborhoods, protect what and where they call home. There is considerably more value in this effort in the face of rapid (re)development that constantly test and challenge communities.

However, I do think it’s important to put things in context. Our cities and our communities were designed and built to facilitate the lives and livelihoods of a privileged few at the expense of the marginalized majority. The built environment is peppered with inequity: where/how buildings and spaces are located, how/when people access them, who can access them, what has value and how it is valued, how people move from one point to another, etc. The law itself has enforced and reinforced these inhumane practices and, long after the worst of these were scrapped, the effects remained.

No wonder it has become so hard to untangle the benefits of community “ownership” from the rising harms. We want people to be invested in their neighborhoods, but not to the exclusion of anyone else who might live there, too. We want to empower neighbors to fight a trash dump, but not to halt every housing project the region needs.

All things considered, nimbyism is yet another cog in a system of oppression that has historically limited who can build wealth, where it can be built, and how it can be built. Coupled with a sense of ownership and the desire to hold on to what is deemed to be theirs – either by right or by residency – urbanites, even the most well-meaning among them, become extensions of a system of oppression. People can see inequity. People can feel inequity. So, here we are today.

Who has claim?